Wolfgang Frühauf, Dresden

Describing and Preserving Music Manuscripts

The German Working Group Advocates Preserving Sources

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today I will not be talking about cataloging music manuscripts. Instead, my lecture will be about their preservation and storage. This topic seems necessary to me because more than a few music sources that we open up for research and use are damaged and therefore vulnerable. It makes little sense, though, for RISM to catalog music manuscripts that may be unusable or even ruined in the long run due to damage.

The musicologists in Germany who have been handling the bulk of the music manuscripts over the decades are o ur RISM colleagues. Therefore, a certain degree of joint responsibility inheres in them for the preservation and storage of these cultural treasures. What kind of manuscript experts would our RISM colleagues be–most of whom hold doctorates–if they produced well-made catalogs but did not take note of the damage present on the manuscripts and did not alert their unwitting owners to such damage and their risks?

This is why I argue that the profile of a manuscript expert should also include knowledge

  1. of the nature and material of the manuscript in hand,
  2. of potential hazards and how to recognize signs of damage, and
  3. of preservation techniques for manuscripts.

In addition, a manuscript expert ‘s job duties also include verbal exertion of influence on the preservation of vulnerable sources, specifically on the storage of the manuscripts in their own institution.

The seven colleagues in the German working group prepare approximately 10,000 titles annually and must examine about 5,000 manuscripts by hand. Most of these sheets of music appearto be robust and resilient. The predominantly dark-brown notation often looks like a lovely drawing on beige-colored paper. The pages are often so beautiful that one might frame them and hang them on the wall.

With their educated eyes, and sometimes also with their trained noses, our RISM colleagues notice, however, that more than a few of these fine-looking musical works are damaged, that they run the risk of being destroyed in the long run.

Our RISM responsibility for the preservation of manuscripts begins here.

Since curators of small manuscript collections often don’t recognize such dangers, they fail to take necessary preventative measures. Our RISM colleagues are therefore asked to look out for hazards and damage and suggest necessary conservation steps. In case of serious potential for danger, the findings are to be reported to those responsible for the collection in writing.

Our RISM colleagues remain musicologists and are not conservators! But due to their longtime experience working with manuscripts, they do know common types of damage. They know what causes damage and also how to repair it. All the same, our colleagues went to a workshop called “Preservation and Conservation of Manuscripts” to learn more about this from an expert.

Further more, our colleagues are aided by a preservation booklet that the RISM German working group has released. It will soon be published in German and English on the website of the RISM Zentralredaktion. RISM Germany has distributed 500 copies of the brochure to music libraries, churches, and music collections as a guide for preventative and protective care of music collections.

Best Practices for Preservation

If our colleagues recognize on-site hazardous conditions for manuscripts, the curators of the collections should be notified of the hazards as well as best practices for secure storage of materials.

Such best practices are:

  1. Shelve materials in an organized way.
  2. The storage area should be environmentally controlled. The temperature should be between 18-20°C and relative humidity should be between 45-55%.
  3. Avoid exposure to direct sunlight and keep the area free from dust.
  4. Store unbound manuscripts in acid-free folders.

Some typical types of damage to manuscripts dating from 1600-1830

Paper was manufactured with pure river water until 1865 and thus exhibits an alkaline character. As a result, the paper is age resistant and this rag paper can last 800 years or more. Dangers for these manuscripts usually come from the ink used to write on them. Acids in the dried ink combined with warm, moist air gradually cause the paper it is written on to deteriorate. The damage manifests itself through darkened writing on the recto side and light brown bleed-through on the verso. Decades later, this writing becomes black and the counters of the letters or the notes themselves fall right off the page. This kind of damage is known as ink corrosion.

Ink Corrosion

What can be done about ink corrosion?

  1. Paper must be deacidified by a conservator and losses must be restored.
  2. It is important to store the manuscripts henceforth in a cool, dry place.

Mold Outbreaks

Mold s tarts to grow on materials in conditions of high relative humidity and high room temperature. The course of infestation can last years, but it can also last just weeks or months.

What does damage look like?

  • The familiar mold bloom appears most frequently.
  • Less known but occasionally encountered are enzyme discolorations and, sometimes, holes in the paper.

What is the course of action against mold**?

  1. Brush off and remove mold bloom.
  2. Irradiate or fumigate moldy manuscripts.
  3. It is important to store the manuscripts in a cool, dry place.

Acid Migration

In small collections, music manuscripts are sometimes just bundled together and laid on shelves. Other times, loose manuscripts are stacked away in folders or cardboard boxes, whatever is easier. But such storage jeopardizes the manuscripts if the enclosures are made from acidic paper. Paper and cardboard made before 1990 are often acidic. In the course of two or three decades, the acid in the cardboard migrates onto the manuscript pages, which gradually causes the paper to become brown and brittle.

Only one thing can help here:

The manuscripts must be enclosed in acid-free folders.

Pest Damage

Pest damage on manuscripts is usually old and happened many years ago; nevertheless, insect damage from today’s book beetles and silverfish cannot be ruled out. It especially happens when the materials are stored in conditions that are too warm and too moist.

This is what damage looks like:

Book beetles have eaten through holes and channels in the paper; silverfish have caused ragged edges on the pages.

Countermeasures are:

  • Store the manuscripts in a cool, dry place.
  • Fumigate manuscripts that have been newly affected by book beetles.
  • Have holes or other damage restored by conservators.

Closing Remarks

These have been typical types of damage seen in music manuscripts from the 16th to mid-19th centuries. Beginning in 1870, paper that has been produced by industrial processes comes into use, which suffers from different types of damage and requires different preservation measures.

I have illustrated how RISM Germany envisages supporting manuscript collections that might be threatened by hazards or damage. We must not forget that our RISM colleagues are not conservators. Yet they do have basic knowledge of the material and nature of manuscripts, know risks, and recognize signs of damage. For these reasons, they shall be able to help avoid damage to and losses of music manuscripts. The booklet that I mentioned earlier shall also be of use in this regard. I would be pleased if our efforts here also challenge you to advance the preservation of vulnerable manuscripts.

(During the presentation, types of damage were shown to illustrate the talk. These images are in the preservation booklet that I mentioned.)


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